Humble Palmer takes torch

3-2-04, 3:40 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

The Bengals don't want Carson Palmer to be Jon Kitna. Carson Palmer doesn't want to be Jon Kitna. All Willie Anderson knows is that Carson Palmer is already different than David Klingler or Akili Smith.

"He's a 6-5 guy with that John Elway, Peyton Manning type of arm, and if things break down he can get out and scramble," Anderson said Monday, reacting to the news the 24-year-old Palmer is now the team's No. 1 quarterback. "He's got all the physical tools you look for. Plus, he's got all the qualities that made Jon Kitna the wonderful human being he is.

"He's better coached than any of the rookies who have come in here and that's no knock on anybody," Anderson said. "As a lineman, you know when those guys are getting coached every snap and every situation. Even Jon said last year that he was as well prepared as he's even been for games."

Palmer becomes the ninth different starting quarterback since Anderson joined the team in 1996, and, like Kitna said Monday, he and Palmer are at the opposite ends of the spectrum. Kitna got here on NAIA brains, NFL trial-and-error, and intermediate ingenuity. Palmer got here via the computer, the Heisman Trophy, and 300-yard games with the kind of explosive style the Bengals hope takes Kitna's competent 13th-in-the-league offense to the next level.

"There's a reason we took him with the first pick in the draft," said offensive coordinator Bob Bratkowski. "He has the physical stature that you look for in a quarterback. He has the physical tools, He has shown he has the mental ability to do it. We picked him in that position for the long run. He has a very, very, big upside. Our thinking is to try to improve this team anyway we can and giving him this opportunity is one way of dong that, and by no means is that a cut on Jon. He's a great quarterback and showed it last year. This is a process we're taking."

The process also means there is going to be a seismic shift in how the offense is led. As the laid-back Palmer said, he won't be the feisty Kitna just to replace his

personality because "That's not me. I'm just going to do what I always do. Do things right, and hopefully lead by example."

Kitna knows he spent the better part of his three seasons here going out on a limb, taking on management at the end of the 2002 and fighting for issues during the weekly strategy scrum with the coaches like any No. 1 NFL quarterback.

"I'm in the back seat now. This is Carson's offense," Kitna said. "He has to do the things he likes to do. As vocal as I was for the last couple of years in really to see what was best suited for our team, I'm not going to be saying those things any more unless I'm asked. . .now it's time for me to get in the background. Let Carson handle it the way he wants to handle it.

"He's more of a just-call-the-play-you-want-to -call- we-run-it kind of guy," Kitna said. "I'm more hands on."

Yet maybe it won't be all that different. After all, Palmer has taken notes on every move Kitna has made since he arrived. They even roomed together the night before games and Palmer saw plenty of similarities.

"I really didn't know what to expect. Is he up all night studying and studying Sunday morning?" Palmer said. "I didn't know what to do. Jon's approach is not to overkill it. If you don't know it by Saturday night, then you're not going to know it. I feel like I'm that type of player. You can't over study. You've still got to play and react to certain situations. The way he prepared, obviously it worked. . .not overkill things and grind things into your head. You still have to go out and make plays.

"I'm not a rah-rah guy and neither is Jon," Palmer said.

Maybe the best Bengals' source for how Palmer is going to be in the huddle and the locker room is new receivers coach Hue Jackson, the former USC offensive coordinator that recruited Palmer to the school.

"I think Carson is a calm, poised individual and that when the time comes, he'll take the opportunity to be the vocal leader," Jackson told Bengals.com last month. "To be the leader by example, that he will do that. That's the track record (at USC). He had to exhibit something to be the starting quarterback there for four years. If not, it's like anything else.

"If players don't believe in you, they won't follow you and they followed him all the way to the Orange Bowl," Jackson said. "I don't have any reservation about who he is and what he is about. Who ever doesn't think he's got that is going to be surprised how his career goes."

But like defensive tackle John Thornton said, the Bengals already have key leaders in place.

"I think the locker room is pretty much going to be the same," Thornton said. "You've got guys like Kevin Hardy and Willie, and Kitna's still going to be around so I'm sure he's going to be doing his thing. This is something we all knew was going to happen once we took him No. 1. It happened to me in Tennessee when they took Albert Haynesworth in the first round. I knew they couldn't pay everybody."

Kitna thinks the one good thing about the decision is that it came early.

"Guys have a few months to deal with it before our season," Kitna said. "Guys know what they have in me. Guys know regardless if I'm the guy in there, or the backup, I'm going to be the biggest team guy I can be."

Palmer flashed some decisiveness Monday when asked if he could get wide receiver Chad Johnson back to the Pro Bowl.

"Chad can get himself back in the Pro Bowl," Palmer said. "He's that type of guy. I'm excited to play with him. Just give him a chance to catch some balls, and he can make something happen like he did last year. And Peter did too. I want to help Peter Warrick go to the Pro Bowl."

Bratkowski knows that taking a quarterback No. 1 means you think he can be a "perennial Pro Bowl player." But to estimate where he is now "would be foolish." One thing is certain, though. They have to play him to find out.

"Doing it repeatedly. Doing it under pressure. Doing it with games on the line. The process has to get started now," Bratkowski said. "We're going to find out how ready he is. We know during the course of the year his preparation was good. We know at certain times (from games six to 12) he was the No. 2 quarterback ready to go in at any time. We threw in some extra blitz drills for him, which is probably the most important thing for a young quarterback. To be able to see those blitzes, handle them, deal with them, and he did a fine job there."

Although Palmer didn't take a single snap in 2003, Bratkowski admits this isn't like starting a rookie quarterback because he was here even before Day One, when he signed his contract two days before the draft. And Palmer feels at ease with two major lessons in the book bag he brings to work.

"It's not so much (learning) game, it's just what the lifestyle is. What the meetings are like, what practices are like, what game days are like. How you prepare," Palmer said. "The two-minute drill in the NFL and the two-minute drill in college is two different worlds. Without the clock stopping after every first down changes the game completely. That was the No. 2 (most important) thing I had to learn as we went and seeing Jon handle those two-minute situations."

Out in California, Palmer has been working with a personal trainer for three hours a day, primarily on flexibility, and he expects to arrive in Cincinnati a week before off-season workouts begin March 22. He knows there will be rust since he hasn't played in a real game since 2002, but he hopes to play at least a half in each of the four pre-season games. And he has faith in his enormous ability.

"Football is football," Palmer said. "It's different from college, but it's just like jumping back on after not having been on a bike for a couple of years. It takes awhile to get going, but once you go it, your back on it."

Just how far he takes the Bengals for a ride has now become one of the NFL's biggest questions in 2004.

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